Why Do Dogs Lick Themselves Excessively?

A tongue-wagging FidoA tongue-wagging FidoDuring a recent visit to Southern California, I was able to join my friend and his dog for a morning ritual. Every morning, as the rest of the family sleeps, Mike Telleria and pooch Sheila descend the stairs of their condo, cross the parking lot and head for a nearby field to enjoy a game of fetch. At 12 years old, Sheila doesn't move quite as fast as she used to, but this ritual proves that a well-worn tennis ball can turn back time.

After a few rounds, Mike and Sheila walk across grass still wet with dew and ascend the stairs once again. Before returning inside, Mike dips each of Sheila's furry paws into a bowl of water just outside the front door. Then he grabs an old rag and rubs her paws clean before they go inside and start the day. Without this morning ritual, Mike says, Sheila will lick her paws to raw nubs, removing hair along the way.

Sheila most likely suffers from a contact allergy caused by chemicals used to treat the lawn, said Dr. Annie Price of Ormewood Animal Hospital in Atlanta. Mike's paw-bathing ritual not only prevents Sheila from tracking those chemicals inside, it also alleviates the risk of her consuming them.

"Physically touching [chemicals in treated grass] has created an irritation," she says. "You don't want them licking that stuff off."

Plenty of pets lick their paws, their people and anything else that's within reach. My dog even has the nickname "Lickin' Lulu" because she's never met a stranger who she doesn't want to lick - except for an orange tabby who taunts her during walks.

If your pet licks too much, Price notes a few health issues to consider:

Allergies: Dogs can develop environmental allergies from inhaling mold and pollen, as well as household dust and mites. Price says that food allergies also may be the culprit. When pets are intolerant to something in their food, the issue often manifests as itchy skin. "Most have allergies to the protein, whether it's chicken, fish or beef," Price says. "A lot can have allergies to the carbohydrate source."

Your veterinarian can help identify potential food allergies and recommend the best food options for itchy pets. That's the best route to take before altering its diet. While a number of premium pet food brands tout wheat- or grain-free formulations, Price says that dogs typically are not allergic to gluten and do not require a grain-free diet. As omnivores, dogs can eat meat, grains, fruits and vegetables. Her own dogs enjoy a vegetarian diet that primarily consists of grain and soy. Price notes that cats are obligate carnivores and should not have too many carbohydrates in their diet, so take a careful look at the list of ingredients on their pet food as well. Wet formulations help ensure that cats get much-needed water in their diet.

Also see: 5 creative ways communities persuade dog owners to pick up poo

Behavioral issues: Unfortunately, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder are not limited to people. When pets lick their front paws excessively, it is frequently a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder. "Think of a person chewing their fingernails or twirling their hair," Price says. "It's behavior that is soothing to them."

To address the problem, Price says vets typically look for underlying medical conditions. In some cases, physical and mental stimulation can help. Check out interactive toys and try longer walks to burn off energy.

Impacted anal glands: When dogs excessively lick their rear and scoot their bottoms across carpeted areas, it's time to have those anal glands expressed. EHow.com has a video that walks through the steps, but I'm more than happy to pay a vet for this service.

Infection: When pets develop an infection, that area can become itchy, leading to more licking than usual. Bacteria and yeast also can cause problems. Be sure to check pets carefully, and pay particular attention to their paws after walks. Urinary tract infections also tend to cause excessive licking. What may seem like a minor issue can lead to costly vet bills if not addressed quickly, so schedule an appointment if the problem persists.

Pain: If pets suffer from arthritis, joint pain or other issues, licking may soothe achy trouble spots. An exam can help identify underlying issues.

Parasites: When cats and dogs bite or lick themselves excessively, fleas are typically the No. 1 culprit, says Price. Signs of abnormal grooming include short and sparse hair along a cat's belly, back and sides. Dogs with flea allergies often lick excessively around their tail and lower back.

"Most of the time, you don't see fleas on them because they have groomed them off," she says, noting that cats are meticulous groomers. To provide relief, Price stresses the importance of monthly flea preventatives, even during colder months.

And you should be safe, too: It can be hard to resist kisses from a frisky puppy, but Price recommends exercising a little restraint. Remember, dogs lick the bottom of your shoes, she says. Would you lick the bottom of your shoes?

"Ideally, you shouldn't let them lick," Price says. "I say all that and, of course, I let dogs lick me in the face. Then I wonder why I break out sometimes."

Related pet stories: